They’re from Georgia and they both have double-byes to the semifinals.
Aside from those obvious similarities, top seed Georgia State and second seed Georgia Southern have nothing in common as they get ready for the Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball tournament at Lakefront Arena. Their campuses in Atlanta (Georgia State) and Statesboro (Georgia Southern) are a three-hour drive from each other, but they are a million miles apart in terms of tournament expectations.
Georgia State (22-9, 15-5 Sun Belt) arrives as the clear favorite and with overwhelming pressure to win after dominating the conference a year ago before suffering a heartbreaking overtime defeat to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in the championship game. The athletic department slapped the hashtag #unfinished business on its GSUPanthers twitter account in anticipation of the tournament.
Georgia Southern (21-8, 14-6), which played in the Southern Conference last year, is just getting started. Picked to finish ninth out of 11 teams by the league’s coaches in the preseason, the Eagles flew to the top of the standings before losing to the Panthers on Saturday in a battle for first place. Their last winning season was 2007-08, and their last NCAA tournament berth was 1992.
Both teams are 80 minutes away from cutting down the nets. Georgia State will open Saturday against either No. 4 seed UL-Lafayette (19-12, 13-7) or the winner of Thursday’s game between No. 5 UT-Arlington (16-14, 10-10) and No. 8 Arkansas-Little Rock (13-17, 8-12).
“At the end of the day, if we play defense and rebound, there’s nobody that can beat us,” said two-time Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year R.J. Hunter, the son of Panthers coach Ron Hunter and one of three high-profile guys on the team. “We’re tougher than we were last year.”
Georgia Southern gets third seeded Louisiana-Monroe (20-11, 14-6) or the winner of Thursday’s game between No. 6 Appalachian State (12-17, 9-11) and No. 7 South Alabama (11-20, 9-11).
“To only need to win one game to get into the championship, that means everything to me as a senior,” guard Jelani Hewitt said. “I was 1 year old the last time we went to the NCAA tournament. I just want to do it for the alumni here and the history of our program.”
It took the Panthers months to get over last year’s history, when they blew a 70-61 lead with three minutes left in regulation against UL-Lafayette after winning the regular season title by five games. The loss lingered into this season as Georgia State struggled with motivation knowing the only games that truly mattered would come in New Orleans.
“I was disappointed for a long time,” said Ryan Harrow, a former Kentucky starter who scored a career-high 37 points in that gut-wrenching defeat. “I felt like we could have gone to the NCAA tournament and made people believe in Georgia State.”
Harrow averages 20.2 points and Hunter averages 19.7 points. Georgia State is one of two teams in the country with two players among the top 20 in scoring (Iona is the other).
The Panthers added defensive stopper Kevin Ware, who played a key role on Louisville’s 2012-13 national championship team before suffering a gruesome broken tibia in a regional final victory against Duke. That injury, and his teammates’ sickened reaction to it, went viral.
His impact on the Panthers has been infectious. They rank 12th nationally in field-goal percentage defense and lead the Sun Belt in blocks and steals.
“We thought our defense would get better with him, but it’s shot out the roof,” Ron Hunter said. “He changes how hard we practice and how we play with his deflections and his presence.”
Georgia Southern counters with Hewitt, the Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team selection. He averages 18.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.7 steals and is one of four seniors in the Eagles’ rotation.
The Eagles boast a pivotal transfer as well. Forward Trent Wiedeman (6-feet-8, 255 pounds), a third-team All Sun Belt selection, played two seasons with Charleston. That’s hardly the same pedigree as coming from Kentucky or Louisville, but like the rest of his teammates, he is under the radar.
“When we started playing pickup with each other in the summer, it just felt right,” Wiedeman said. “Our guys really complement each other well. It felt like I’d been playing with them for years.”